A Whole Bunch of Crap I Have Learned in Two Years of Running this Blog and Traveling West Africa

by phil on June 28, 2012

Helping to prepare Christmas dinner in Abidjan with a camel shaved into my head

God willing, this blog will turn two years old tomorrow, June 29th. It started as many travel blogs do — as a public journal for a trip of definite length. After two years, the trip does not have an end point and the blog has become much more than a home for travel narratives. There are fewer stories about my loose stools and more posts on language, music, dance, camel drawing, and recently, a growing restaurant and catering business that I started with two former couchsurfing hosts in Abidjan.

Things I’ve learned from running this blog

Despite the frenzy that occurred when I made professional grade camel drawing accessible to the public, this blog has relatively modest traffic. I don’t write posts that go viral (although a few continue to bounce around social media and tumblrs) and only a small number of very special folks arrive at this site via search engine. Most of them are looking to find information on women sleeping with snakes. That’s not a joke. Here are the most popular search terms for my site for the past year:

I actually know why that’s happening. I wrote a post in 2010 about a Ghallywood film in which a man tricked women into sleeping with snakes. I don’t even want to link to it as doing so may give more authority to the post with respect to Google’s wack algorithm. It does make me happy, however, to see that people are arriving at my site by searching for azonto and kenkey and fish.

There are the snake sex people, who most likely leave the site as soon as they find out I don’t actually have any human-reptile porn, and then there are a whole bunch of really cool folks that have become regular readers. The most important lesson I’ve learned in two years of running this thing is that a blog can be a real point of interaction. I’m not just talking about virtual relationships (which I also appreciate). I have met readers in real life, and many of them have become good friends. Thinking about the past two years without the people that I have met through this site and twitter is difficult.

Other things I’ve learned from running this blog:

- The most popular posts are short and itemized, but those posts also tend to attract the most fickle guests.
- A blog can serve as a portfolio of writing and media as well as an informal resume.
- A blog can produce an income or lead you to a place that will help you do so.
- Anyone can start or run a blog — they are very low-tech
- People appreciate big ideas, and will share them widely. Example: camel drawing
- A blog can inspire many other projects

The decision to start this blog is right up there with the decision to live/travel in West Africa. Which is to say, it was a very good one.

Things I’ve learned from living and traveling in West Africa

Settlers of Catan is universally loved

I brought Catan to the village of Fana, Mali last year and it continues to see regular play. It didn’t take them long to pick it up either; to this day, I am in winless in Fana.

I can move my hips

To be honest, I think it would be hard not to learn how to dance if you spent a significant amount of your time in West Africa.

A grasscutter, also known as the Greater Cane Rat, is relatively good eating

So-called bush meat is not as widely eaten in West Africa as some people seem to think, but it’s around if you know where to look and it doesn’t taste half bad.

Camels are the most graceful and dependable animals on earth.

And that’s to say nothing of their ability to withstand environmental extremes.

I can communicate in French and Bambara

My French was decent a year ago, but it’s come a long way since. Not fluent, but getting there. I’m nowhere near fluent in Bambara, but I made a major breakthrough in the first half of this year. It’s all downhill once you can start thinking in a language.

Mangoes are the superior fruit

And don’t try to tell me that watermelons or strawberries or some other bullshit is better.

I know the exact moment when something catastrophic is going to happen to my bowels.

Also, you don’t need toilet paper if you have a plastic tea kettle filled with water. You do, however, need soap and more water afterwards…

You could drop me in Abidjan, Bamako, Accra, or a select number of villages in the countries where those cities are located, with no money or possessions, and I would be fine.

It’s a good feeling knowing that some people will take you in like family.

I can clean myself with half a bucket of water.

I have a shower at my bamako apartment and Faty recently put in a shower at her house in Abidjan, so I haven’t taken as many bucket showers this year, but I honed my skills in 2010-11.

Many ideas that seem crazy are not.

When David proposed sending lunch deliveries to the business district of Abidjan via bateau-bus (think public water taxi), I was skeptical. It was the cheapest way to get to Plateau, but it seemed inefficient and difficult to coordinate. I was wrong. We now have two delivery guys with wheeled push carts traveling by water taxi. On Monday, we fielded over 70 orders and had our biggest day yet.

This trip (or whatever you want to call it) is just getting started.

The West Africa trip, but also the more abstract trip blending life and “work” — bringing ideas to life, collaborating with people, getting my hands dirty with more than one project.

I would like to say that I have learned many other things — about the way people live, about politics, development, and power dynamics, about how different things are “there” compared to “here” — and I think that I have, but they wouldn’t fit into a post like this and they are almost impossible to pin down anyways.

I am heading back to West Africa in a couple of weeks. The trip, and this blog, continue.

And now for some dramatic closing music — you know, pleine d’émotion. Don’t be foolish and cut this off before the beat drops.

link to this classic Mali tune.

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{ 53 comments… read them below or add one }

Mzuri June 28, 2012 at 2:43 pm

I didn’t think I liked mangoes til I ate them in Ethiopia. A whole different experience than what is possible with mangoes we can buy in the U.S. My favorite writing about mangoes is here, at Cock and Bull Stories: http://ngishili.com/?s=mangoes. Beautiful.

Love the song.

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Mzuri June 28, 2012 at 3:18 pm

Doh! Forgot my link.

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phil July 2, 2012 at 6:58 pm

Hi Mzuri,
Agreed. I had a mango the other day here and it was so tasteless. This is a really beautiful post you shared. I love anything that is devotional regarding mangoes, but that was special. Thanks !

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Julia June 28, 2012 at 2:58 pm

Phil, I love your blog and am a regular reader. Keep up the great blog posts; you are a great story teller. Your French fluency makes me laugh, considering you and Shaud tried to speak French in the Philadelphia airport in high school. One of my favorite stories, ever :)

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phil July 2, 2012 at 7:01 pm

Hey Julia,
Thanks a lot! Yeah, that didn’t work out to well. Actually, I’m surprised we weren’t detained that day. Hope you are well :)

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Jeremy Branham June 28, 2012 at 3:05 pm

One of my favorite posts – Happy birthday! What you do in west Africa is awesome and I wish more people read your stories about traveling and life here. So many people feature more popular places but I love the real life stories you share in places people just don’t go. Keep doing what you’re doing. I definitely don’t come here for sex with snakes! :)

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phil July 2, 2012 at 7:07 pm

Jeremy,
Always appreciate your support and I’m relieved to know you are not coming here for the snake porn. Hope to see you one day in West Africa!

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D.J. - The World of Deej June 28, 2012 at 4:41 pm

Great stuff, happy anniversary. I can relate to the weird search terms. I get tons of hits from people searching “Bobby Flay Hot.” Not my target audience. Congrats, and here’s to many more anniversaries…

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phil July 2, 2012 at 7:08 pm

Say what?? That’s funny. When I had hair, a got a lot of bobby flay comparisons, actually. Really pissed me off. Thanks for the note.

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Kay Johnson June 28, 2012 at 6:39 pm

Sex with snakes ??? Well, yes, – on the odd occasion, but that was 50 years ago and with HUMAN snakes in London. It looks like some of your Bloggers have a ‘Cleopatra fixation’. Should warn them – the ones to look for are, in appearance, like the one that killed her. Small, wiry, and jet black – like large earthworms. Can, very occasionally, be seen on our terrace in Polopos- don’t half make Lola run for cover. Lili much amused & still muttering ‘Clyde – where r u ? 2morrow is another day . . . . !’

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phil July 2, 2012 at 7:09 pm

Human snakes? Please tell me more, Kay. Clyde is apparently communicating with Lili via ESP. He won’t tell me what they are talking about, though :P

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Kay Johnson July 25, 2012 at 1:46 am

It’s PRIVATE ! Lili x

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Linda June 28, 2012 at 7:42 pm

I’m so glad that you started this blog! I love it. Can’t remember how I found you, but am pretty sure I didn’t google anything to do with snake porn! Love the video. Just keep on doing it all & thanks for sharing it all. One day I WILL get to West Africa!

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phil July 2, 2012 at 7:10 pm

Thanks so much, Linda. I’m very happy to have you as a reader! Let me know when you do, would be great to get together. In the meantime, I’ll let you know if I ever make it to Tenerife ;)

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Adam Pervez June 29, 2012 at 3:13 am

Fabulous post! Ya, I have a lot of undesirable search terms that are top search terms that bring traffic to my blog as well. Strange how things work, sometimes. But great list of lessons learned and I’m glad you learned how to move your hips. Despite 10 months in Latin America, mine are still set in concrete…

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phil July 2, 2012 at 7:11 pm

Thanks a lot, Adam! Looks like we just missed each other in Ohio. Hopefully we will catch up at some point. Safe travels!

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Kerry Gubits June 29, 2012 at 2:19 pm

Great post, Phil. I enjoy your insights.

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phil July 2, 2012 at 7:11 pm

Thanks a lot, Kerry. Looking forward to hanging out in September.

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Marlys June 30, 2012 at 2:14 am

Keep it up, Phil. And Happy 2nd Anniversary!

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phil July 2, 2012 at 7:12 pm

Thanks, Marlys!

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Dalene June 30, 2012 at 11:43 am

Ohhh, you are one of my favorites Phil. Happy blogiversary, and I am sure there will be many, many more.

(A weird side note, and I can’t believe I am putting this embarrassing revelation out into the public domain, but do you ever play Catan with yourself while in a plane? Like, looking out at the partitioned land below, finding a spot to put a settlement on where you could get forest and wheat and open fields with sheep? No? Uh. I’m alone.)

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phil July 2, 2012 at 7:22 pm

Hi Dalene,
Thanks a lot for the well wishes! I have never played this version of catan before, but you can bet I will now ;)

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Katrina June 30, 2012 at 5:10 pm

Thank goodness for less stool and more cool – camels, that is.

Btw, you know that by writing about snake sex in this post you’re going to get even MORE traffic of that type, right? Hmm, maybe the next idea you can springboard off this crazy West Africa blog thingy is a snake porn site. I bet you’d make big bucks. Maybe even bigger than camel-drawing bucks.

Maybe.

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phil July 2, 2012 at 7:23 pm

Katrina, you inspired the change!!! Re: snake sex, I know… You are right about that. If this stream of traffic continues, I may have no choice but to start the snake porn site. But where will I find the footage?

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Katrina July 2, 2012 at 7:52 pm

Why, you’ll draw it, of course! You’ve already proven your artistic prowess with camels. And if you can draw camels, you can most certainly draw snakes. ;)

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Denise June 30, 2012 at 8:42 pm

I love this post (stumbled upon it as a share in facebook), and I find the snake thing hilarious. I personally get a lot of people coming to my blog after searching for ‘hippo butt’.

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phil July 2, 2012 at 7:24 pm

Hippo butt? Oh man, that is awesome. I would love to get people coming here searching for hippo butts. So much better than snake sex.

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Lisa | LLWorldTour July 3, 2012 at 9:28 am

Great read Phil! I’ve loved getting to ‘know’ you through your site as of late. So many good things here, but I will say….it’s SO true about how we started and how it’s all evolved and mostly because of all the wonderful people who have come into our lives through travel AND, yes, through our blogs. It’s magical really. Hope to meet IRL one day. Guess that means I need to plan my first trip to W. Africa.

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phil July 9, 2012 at 8:01 am

I think it would be great if you planned your first trip to West Africa. I’ll also let you know if I’m passing through Chicago any time soon :) Thanks for the note, Lisa!

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Vicky July 3, 2012 at 9:36 am

Haha can’t believe women having sex with snakes is the search term that brings the most views to your site! Pretty funny. Looks like you’ve learned a lot in these last 2 years blogging. We are just getting into travel blogging in preparation for our 2 year backpacking trip (we leave from japan in the fall) so it’s always helpful and interesting to read posts like this. Oh and completely agree with you that mango is the superior fruit!

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phil July 9, 2012 at 8:03 am

VIcky,
Glad to hear that — about your upcoming trip and, especially, your thoughts on mango!

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Stephanie Waasdorp July 3, 2012 at 12:39 pm

Bonsoir Phil,
you are very funny and I wish you all the best luck in the world. I have been traveling and working in West Africa (Ghana, Mali, Mauritania) for some times in the past and I think I have kind of an idea about how challenging and beautiful it can be! I will keep following you.
Greets from the Netherlands, Stephanie
Ps: I share my concerns about the situation in Mali with you. Let’s keep focussing on the positive :).

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phil July 9, 2012 at 8:04 am

Thanks, Stephanie

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Sophie HeadingThere July 4, 2012 at 9:15 am

Loving your blog since I came across it a few months ago and appreciate the laughs it gives me as well as the insight! Snake porn…who knew??

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phil July 9, 2012 at 8:05 am

snake porn is an industry waiting to be born

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Balsamic Benny July 5, 2012 at 11:57 am

Great post other than the blatant, below the belt cheap shot at Strawberries and Watermelon. Blasphemy. I’m just thankful Pineapple didn’t have to withstand the abuse.

Song is super phunky!

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phil July 9, 2012 at 8:14 am

Yeah, you’re right, I forgot pineapple — another overrated fruit!

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uncle andy July 8, 2012 at 4:12 am

so sweet!
I love how much you trust people and life to take you wherever you need to go. Megan and I might be jumping of the steady job boat here pretty soon, and you’re big part of why the fear is dissipating. peace

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phil July 9, 2012 at 8:16 am

Andy,
Great to hear that. Where might you be going?? Would love to get together somewhere…

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Ekua July 9, 2012 at 1:47 am

It’s funny how one post can bring the craziest traffic. I learned that after I wrote a popular post on the subject of squat toilets.

Grasscutter? Phil, we need to talk. I kid, I kid… but I’m a try anything once kinda person and I’m still wary of bush meat. I’ve only seen it being sold on stick on the side of the freeway by lone salesmen with huge smiles. But hey, it’s your stomach :P

Congrats on two years!

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Kay Johnson July 9, 2012 at 2:09 am

Well said Ekua ! I saw grasscutter in the hands of two small boys – and it looked ‘meaty’. My Uncle claimed that it’s a bit like rabbit & you need a good strong sauce but, as I didn’t totally believe him, we didn’t have it, or, if we did, I didn’t know about it. He also said that it’s very nutritious & high in protein ‘cos they can be found near the plantations where they feed. Stomach allowing, – it’s definitely worth a try !

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phil July 9, 2012 at 8:20 am

I remember that squat toilet post. I think I may have even promoted it myself ;) Hahaha – I have never eaten from the guys selling grasscutter on the sticks roadside and that is not on the agenda anytime soon ;)

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Kay Johnson July 9, 2012 at 2:12 am

Now – swat toilets are something else. Have you tried a ‘thunder box’ ? Check for snakes, (don’t stop to draw), and then sit down. Well, don’t sit – just ‘position’ ! Happy poo-ing !!!?

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phil July 9, 2012 at 8:21 am

Swat toilets? Thunder box? Can you please elaborate, Kay?

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Kay Johnson July 9, 2012 at 9:36 am

Swat should read squat. Thunder Box is something else – i.e. a rough wooden box with a loo hole cut out of the middle & NO BASE – which allows liquids to drench your feet when it leaks which it surely does ! The snake is curled up & waiting for a feast . . . . Yuk ! yuk!
I encountered a Thunder Box on the road from Kumasi to Accra, in 1975, at a ‘colonial built’ meeting caff. with buffet food, local & european. Everyone thought it was great fun – dontchno !

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phil July 15, 2012 at 5:09 pm

Oh I know Thunder Boxes. I’ve just never heard that term before. It’s very amusing to me. I have never confronted a snake in a “thunder box” but I have dealt with varying sizes of spiders, which is almost worse for me!

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Kay Johnson July 15, 2012 at 6:42 pm

Chicken !

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Izy Berry - The Wrong Way Home July 15, 2012 at 3:02 pm

Mangoes are the best fruit, indeed. Also, the search terms leading people to your site are hilarious. How did you find them out in a tally like that? Well done on finally monetizing your blog, that’s a great step in the right direction. All the best for your future.

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phil July 15, 2012 at 5:10 pm

Izy, thanks for seeing the light. I found out the search tally by looking in my stats in wordpress. There is a plug in called wordpress.com stats that tabulates it that way, but you can find the same in google analytics.

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Laura July 23, 2012 at 1:53 pm

1. Even if it’s not your desired traffic, it’s still rather funny that people find you by searching for women having sex with snakes and it’s a good talking point.
2. I am also proud to say that I have mastered a bucket bath and know that I can live minimally.
3. I used to love mangoes until I get extremely sick for a week in Bali after eating one. I now stick to bananas in Kenya but hope to one day be able to eat a mango again.
4. Excited to continue reading about your restaurant :)

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andrew wahba July 24, 2012 at 6:02 pm

sex with snakes, no offence, but I bet you had some disappointed visitors to your site!

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uncle andy July 25, 2012 at 5:49 am

I’m starting a little music biz in Texas, though we looked into, and are continuing to look into Burma, Thailand, and Indonesia for starting a cafe or other kind of business.

Yess, would be wonderful to meet up. We have to rejuvenate cash funds, and maybe can start traveling again soon.

Maybe do this next year if we are able. Widely available scholarships w/ stipend are available to study music and other arts such as batik in Indonesia for up to a year.
http://darmasiswa.kemdiknas.go.id/v2/index.php?p=about

Would be great to see you, let’s see what we can do. You are welcome to come to texas at any point. there is much fun to be had in the woods and lakes of north texas

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Kay Johnson July 29, 2013 at 2:27 am

Glad to see u r in good line for insurance quotations – particularly in these coming elections !

Don´t forget an account for Clive 2. . . . . LOL Lili x

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